President Eisgruber’s June 27 Message to the Princeton Community concerning the renaming of the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs and Wilson College will undoubtedly prompt discussion among students and alumni. But a building is no more than brick and mortar or concrete. What is essential is how we modify our attitudes and our behavior towards humanity. Princeton has been making substantial efforts to combat implicit and explicit racial bias on campus, and I am hopeful that this trend will continue. I applaud the efforts of Princeton University to create a more just environment on campus.
I support changing the name of two buildings on campus to eliminate the visual abuse that they have caused. Does it end here? Just how far should Princeton go to remove the names of past Princeton presidents who contributed to the growth and success of Old Nassau, but who were racially biased? I do not pretend to know the answer to that question. But what I can do is relate the early history of our university’s first eight presidents, courtesy of the Princeton & Slavery Project website, found at https://slavery.princeton.edu/stories/slaveholding-presidents. There you will find the information summarized below.
Reverend Jonathan Dickinson was the first president of the College of New Jersey. The hall housing the Department of History bears his name. In June 1733, Dickinson purchased an enslaved girl named Genny from a neighbor. Slavery remained central to Dickinson’s worldview throughout his career in the pulpit. From “Princeton’s Founding Trustees” by Michael R. Glass.
Reverend Aaron Burr Sr. served as the second president of the College of New Jersey, from 1748 to 1757. In 1756, Burr oversaw the college’s move to its new Princeton campus—which at the time consisted only of Nassau Hall (built on land donated by a wealthy slaveholder), and the President’s House. That same year, Burr purchased an enslaved man named Caesar for eighty pounds. Caesar was not Burr’s only slave, however. When Burr died in office in 1757, he left a will that listed three enslaved people assessed at a monetary value of 150 pounds. From “Aaron Burr Sr.” by Shelby Lohr.
In 1757, Jonathan Edwards succeeded his recently deceased son-in-law, Aaron Burr Sr., as its third president. Edwards and his wife Sarah had eleven children. He maintained the large household in part through the labor of enslaved people. In 1731, Edwards visited Newport, Rhode Island, where he purchased Venus, a “Negro girl” estimated to be 14 years old. Records also indicate that Edwards owned a “Negro boy,” Titus, and a second female slave named Leah—although historians are uncertain as to whether the family simply gave Venus a biblical name. From “Jonathan Edwards, Sr.” by Richard Anderson.
Samuel Davies was the College of New Jersey’s fourth president. Davies was particularly interested in ministering to slaves. He championed literacy for enslaved people and seemed deeply committed to their spiritual welfare. However, he never questioned the legitimacy of human bondage and owned slaves himself in Virginia. From “Presbyterians and Slavery” by James Moorehead.
Samuel Finley was unanimously elected the college’s fifth president in 1761, after the death of Samuel Davies. While serving as president, Samuel Finley owned slaves, at least six of whom lived and worked at the President’s House on campus. At the time of his death in 1766, Finley’s estate included “Two Negro women, a negro man, and three Negro children.” A public notice advertising the sale of the late president’s property stated that the enslaved women were conversant in “all kinds of house work,” with the men trained in farming and agricultural work. In August 1766, these enslaved people were sold alongside furniture, livestock, and “books, religious, moral and historical.” The auction was advertised to take place at the President’s House on campus. From “Samuel Finley” by Shelby Lohr and R. Isabela Morales.
John Witherspoon was Princeton’s sixth president. Though he advocated revolutionary ideals of liberty and personally tutored several free Africans and African Americans in Princeton, he himself owned slaves and both lectured and voted against the abolition of slavery in New Jersey. From “John Witherspoon” by Lesa Redmond.
Samuel Stanhope Smith studied under President Witherspoon and returned to Princeton as a professor in 1779, and succeeded Witherspoon as its seventh president in 1795. We know from a 1784 newspaper advertisement that Smith owned at least one slave during his time at Princeton, a farm hand whom Smith was keen to exchange for another slave “accustomed to cooking and waiting in a genteel family.” This preference for house slaves made its way into Smith’s Essay. There was, he insisted, a “great difference” between the facial features of “domestic and field slaves.” House slaves soon began to resemble their masters, both in their features and their conduct. This gave Smith hope that, if “admitted to a liberal participation of the society, rank and privileges of their masters, they would change their African peculiarities much faster.” Smith never abandoned the belief that white people stood at the apex of human society. He insisted that African Americans and Native Americans could become white if placed in different environments, or after intermarriage with whites. From “Samuel Stanhope Smith” by Nicholas Guyatt.
In 1812, Princeton’s Board of Trustees unanimously elected Ashbel Green as the eighth president of the college. Ashbel Green’s “servant” John was one of three slaves who lived and worked at the President’s House (later called the Maclean House) while Green was president. In June 1813, eight months after moving to Princeton, Green wrote in his diary that he had “purchased the time of a black boy and black girl” from the executors of a recently deceased woman’s estate. The boy, John, was twelve years old at the time, and the girl, Phoebe, was nearly eighteen. Although he considered slavery an evil practice, Green did not believe immediate and universal emancipation would be either practical or beneficial—writing instead that uneducated, irreligious slaves would only “destroy themselves or others” if emancipated before they were prepared to exercise freedom. Green further believed that emancipated slaves and free-born African Americans would fare better in “the land of their ancestors” than in the United States. From “Ashbel Green” by R. Isabela Morales.
The ancient Romans issued government decrees known as damnatio memoriae in an attempt to destroy visual depictions of emperors or public figures from inscriptions, portraits, and coins bearing their image. In like manner, should we change the names of Dickinson Hall, Edwards Hall, and Witherspoon Hall? Should we move portraits of these past Princeton Presidents from the Faculty Room of Nassau Hall (designed, incidentally, by Woodrow Wilson) to a less prominent location? Are these other former University presidents deserving of the legacy of visual immortality, although they did not believe in racial equality? Do we continue to venerate their achievements, despite their support of the institution of slavery?
Before Princeton University goes down such a path, it should consider an additional idea. Perhaps it is time for Princeton to render to Caesar, and all other former slaves of Princeton presidents, and those that have experienced the burdens of discrimination at Princeton that which is due. Betsey Stockton was born into slavery in Princeton at the end of the 18th century. She worked in the home of Ashbel Green. After gaining her freedom, she established a missionary school for native Hawaiian children. She later started a school for Black children in Philadelphia and taught for 30 years in the only public school in Princeton for African American children. (The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, May 2, 2018.) One can read the full story of Betsey Stockton at https://slavery.princeton.edu/stories/betsey-stockton.
In the June 24, 2020 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly one finds the following: “In 2018, the Board of trustees of Princeton University voted to name a new green roof garden at the Firestone Library in her honor. In 2018, the University planted a garden between Firestone Library and Nassau Street to honor Betsey Stockton. The grasses and flowering plants serve as a green roof for the library’s B and C floors.” This is a promising development.